Gina Barreca, PhD, has a clear agenda writing about the mistress during the holidays in a 2010 Psychology Today article entitled The Mistress at Christmas. It is under the site section “Show White Doesn’t Live Here Any More”. She paints the profile of a mistress (the proffered everyday mistress), who is single and involved with a married man, and relies on stereotypical mistress-life facts to tell the story of a coming to conscience during the holidays.
Barreca tells the story of the circumspect mistress in whom conscience and self esteem triumph over delusional love, repressed empathy for her lover’s wife, and low self-esteem. She portrays the mistress who realizes that the game is not worth the candle–she has sold herself short. Though this holiday epiphany belongs to a recognizable type of mistress, the one of an over 35 year old who is not married herself but wishes to be, it is not a one size fits all moral realignment applicable to all mistresses.
The persona in the article is the conscience of the mistress, but the psychologist behind the persona is a critic making a case for the misguided one’s recovery. Story crafting is a great way to hammer some message home subtly and clandestinely. The reader gets a story–and who doesn’t love a story?–without suffering the heavy handed pedantic writer’s moral. And there is a clear moral to this story.
The author unravels the details of the mistress’s situation slowly; she is not unlike many other “typical” mistresses who are pining away for their men, lonely and disillusioned or hopeful about marrying her lover–eventually. They are also self-deluded in thinking that they have “the best of him” and of all worlds.
If she’s over 35, she probably suspects she isn’t getting that ring.
Maybe she tells herself she doesn’t want it: After all, she already has a full life and why clutter it up with a full-time relationship? Where would she find the time, the energy, the metaphoric and literal space? She gets the best of him and his wife gets the rest.
But this reflection, the reader soon discovers is a trap. The writer will steer the reader down the path of silently nodding in agreement or grimacing in revulsion with this assessment–best of both worlds–before she undercuts the mistress’s mere self-justification, as it turns out.
But holidays make it harder to find a safe place in her head. It’s as if the world conspires against her from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.
Innocent enough observation by the mistress, but Barreca’s project is to advocate for the mistress’s rehabilitation, not support her cheating ways. “It’s as if the world conspires against her,” sounds like someone very egocentric and unrealistic. Yes, it is metaphoric and not meant to show the mistress as a paranoid delusional, but it certainly suggests self-absorption, even if as just a passing thought. She feels the outside, uncontrollable forces are responsible for her predicament, her loneliness.
Halloween is her holiday, with masks and disguises, with catsuits and pirate outfits. She’s a shape-shifter, a plunderer, a thief, and she knows it.
Call her all the names you want, and you’ll discover that she’s called herself worse. It’s not like you’re telling her something she doesn’t know. She’s the backstreet girl, the booty call in perpetuum.
She’s Jezebel. She’s Little Suzy Homewrecker.
And there it is: the out-with-it shame and judgment of the mistress by her own internalizing of society’s mores. Yet, while the good doctor is working her reader’s sympathy (not empathy) in reminding the reader that yes, this mistress has a conscience and suffers from it, she is also reinforcing societal notions that the mistress, any mistress, is all of those: shapeshifter, plunderer, thief, booty call, Jezebel and home wrecker. All of those names encompass the socially accepted and reinforced moral dimension of a three-person relationship: deceit, plunder and self-debasement. She cheats the wife of time and money, steals it as her relationship is not legitimated morally or perhaps even legally in the court of public opinion and religious indoctrination, even as she cheats herself of pride, self-respect and open, “valid” public love.
So she makes the round of holiday parties, makes cookies and makes pies, makes jokes and makes new friends. She makes nice. She is nice. It’s not bad, but there’s a blanked-out figure where the man she loves should be.
Why does he need to be there? Is it her need or one she believes she needs because there is a constant bombardment of messages that remind and convince her that the holidays is a time for family and loved ones, and you can not be complete unless you have an other that is acceptably, normatively yours to exhibit. How can you be validated and happy and fulfilled, unless you can show up to holiday parties with a man? Where is the cheer in that holiday cheer?
Now, I am not implying that the mistress is wrong in feeling lonely and lost without a mate she can show up to parties with or that Barreca is profiling a mistress with aberrant ideas and feelings. What I question is how the mistress even knows how much is her belief and picture of herself and how much is her societally derived perception of herself in her unconscious or conscious absorption of the judged self.
Regardless of the speculated cause of her self-vilifying, there is no doubt that the mistress is an outsider and her relationship is inconvenient, frustrating and lonely–in fact.
She can’t call him; too risky. She can’t email him; anything in writing is out. She’s tempted, at her worst moments, to drive by his house in order to catch a glimpse of him through the window when his home is brightly lit after dark. Is his car there? Is she there? The wife?
She is an onlooker from the outside and wishes to be inside. Or does she? What is the measure of the frequency of her wanting to stay on the outside and enjoy the best of him against the frequency of her wanting to give it up for something full time and exclusive? The holidays are a mere smattering of days compared to the rest of the year.
Finally, Barreca shows the weighing mistress mind examining the endearing traits of her lover, what has drawn her to him and had her risk so much to be with him, against the sacrifice on her part to enjoy those alluring qualities.
In the past, she’s always found that little-kid-with-a-secret-look endearing. But today she’s less impressed. Maybe she looks at the wife, a woman more like herself than she’d care to admit. Usually she thinks of her as the woman who has everything and doesn’t appreciate it, but today his wife looks restless, tired, overworked, needy, a little frantic around the eyes. She looks older, but then who doesn’t?
Can this really be her rival? Is this the enemy she cries herself to sleep over on those nights when she can’t convince herself that she has the best part of the deal?
Well, it seems the scales are so obviously tilted that this mistress must be an idiot: “that little-kid-with-a-secret-look” versus crying herself to sleep at night “on those nights when she can’t convince herself” of her good fortune. Her attraction to his cute ways is juxtaposed to her painful self-delusion.
The picture might look different, however, if she quantified how often she lost sleep, one night a year or every night? It would also be another article entirely if the qualities the mistress gloms onto in her crisis of conscience are his traits that complement and fulfill her, like his ability to love her like no other can because of their compatibility in every way except for his being married and not to her. Perhaps she has never met a man who could kiss her in the exact way she could not even have dreamed of before because she didn’t know it existed until he named it with his kiss. Or maybe they love the same movies and find humor in exactly the same situations, let alone that they share the same world vision, values and goals. She may have not met anyone else like him before for the way he makes her feel so deeply loved. Oh, and he has that cute little boy look too.
But this is the doctor’s fiction, her probably anecdotally-derived composite of a certain mistress.. She wants to focus on that mistress who makes poor choices and, in doing the cost-benefit analysis, concludes that the costs to others’ lives and hers are not offset by the benefits because there is no prize–him/marriage–at the end.
She thinks about how the only thing to do when you want to stop going in circles is to stop.
And upon this rational thought, she, like the skaters on the ice before her lonely view on her lonely holiday walk, can joyfully whisk away her troubles and cares to a new life of legitimate love. Which is true, right? She can do better–maybe. But if she wants to have the kids and family like “the wife” has, with all of the drudgery of frictional living as well as the shared painful losses and ecstatic gains that come with coupledom, she needs to move on.
This is a story of a species of mistress, not a specific mistress. It is tailored to fit the message sculpted from the given details, and is merely a thin slice of the mistress pie. What if both were mistresses/misters? Does the distribution of power or deprivation change the equation? The question is not geared to elicit the cliche’d response that two wrongs do not make a right.
If a reader comes to the mistress story, any mistress general or specific, with pre-set notions of absolutes on the question of religiously-induced, societally induced, individually-realized and/or family-enforced rules, the accepted right and wrong of it without further indulgence in details, then those readers are resolved to condemn each mistress without exception. If, however, a mind can meet the material of each case as an unbiased observer of cultural, philosophical, psychological, social, scientific and spiritual facts, she might find that discrete individuals enter into discreet relationships, not types, and that all relationships, legitimate or otherwise, are a cost-benefit analysis.
I want to tell a mistress tale about a woman who is petite and strong with red hair or brown hair and adores both her lover and her freedom, whether she is over 35 and single or 55 and likewise married with children. She understands that the relationship comes with grief, conscience clutches and inconvenience, but she feels the situation is right for her at this time as it adds to her life goals more than it detracts from them. Perhaps she is in a sex-less marriage and her husband secretly or openly wants her to stay with him but satisfy her needs elsewhere because he can no longer do so. Perhaps they have great communication and connection but have outgrown each other as lovers even as they have deepened their well-seasoned friendship.
In this story, the wife of her lover is secretly or unconsciously grateful her husband gets his tiresome sexual needs satisfied elsewhere while she gets the benefit of his name, economic security, friendship and fathering of her children; she closes her eyes to her husband’s dalliances on the side because it takes no noticeable time away from her and the kids. Yes, he is more distant emotionally, but she still gets the day to day rote gestures of affection of the peck on the cheek and pinch of the ass. And from time to time, they do have intensely intimate moments that only marrieds can have by virtue of suffering failures and successes together and raising their kids. She may feel lonely at times, the loneliness that comes with not having all of someone in all ways, but she is not alone.
And he gets the same from his wife and mistress as they get from him. All around, the parties are satisfied for the time being if not for the long run, but none can tell the future, and the kids get to grow up with their parents in truce, or peaceful co-existence if not in marital bliss. The only glaringly volatile risk to everyone involved is the arrangement’s public disclosure with resulting judgement that causes the participants to act according to what is expected of them. Then everyone is screwed.
This is one fictional story of another account that is neither aberrant nor atypical in the human domain of mistress-dom and monogamy. I merely present a competing version to consider. And before I get accused of mere advocacy of a moral relativism, I remind my readers that my campaign, if I can be ascribed one, is for consideration of the specific over the general, the study over the selective moral quipping, and indulgent compassion over unmindful condemnation.
Some people are what they are accused of: a wicked poisonous-apple-toting witch of a stepmother. Some are not, not entirely or not at all. Was Snow White innocent or stupid to trust a stranger? Does she get a free of judgment pass for naiveté, for representing an ideal of innocence pure and sweet? After all, she did steal into the bed of a stranger in an empty house. What was she thinking?
The magic mirror shows you the truth you want to know. The more fruitful option is to question, to work at ‘seeing’ by paying attention to the details as well as the big picture. To withhold judgement until all pertinent facts are present takes strength, a healthy skepticism. The Snow White of my idyllic tale is not the innocent goddess of ignorance but the mistress of doubt, compassion and curiosity.
Those scenarios, hypothetical musings in a magazine or real experiences of the newsworthy, that cause knee-jerk powerful reactions in us are the ones that afford opportunities to test our beliefs and flex our mental, moral and empathic muscles. These muscles need a daily workout to keep them strong and healthy. Stories are the workout gyms in which to sweat it out.